When one employee gives their notice, don’t be surprised if a few more follow suit.
Quitting contagion is a real phenomenon–and it doesn’t just happen at companies with poor management, low wages, or any other metrics that might entice workers to abandon ship. “We’re very social creatures, and we tend to take cues from the people around us,” says Mary-Clare Race, organizational psychologist and chief innovation officer at the HR consulting company LHH. In situations that are ambiguous–living through a pandemic, for instance–people are more likely to make their decisions based on what they see the people around them doing, she says. That’s likely one of the motivating forces behind the Great Resignation–or, as Race prefers to call it, the “Great Reevaluation.”
When a worker of a similar skill level quits, another employee may see that as a sign that there’s plenty of job availability; when a manager leaves, their direct reports may feel less tied to their jobs, or feel resistant to working under new leadership, adds Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. For a mass exodus to truly be considered a “contagion,” she says, the single condition that needs to be met is for employees to have some point of contact with one another.
Although there are plenty of factors that can make a quitting contagion likely to spread, it’s not an inevitability–and a few tactics can help you prevent one at your company.
Check in on morale.
If your workers are disengaged and disillusioned, you’re basically inviting the resignations that will follow. “If the leader is not in tune with the how people in that workgroup perceive the organization and its treatment of them, they’re not a very good leader,” says Rousseau.
But quitting contagions still happen at companies where workers are generally happy, as Seth Besmertnik, CEO of the marketing technology company Conductor, learned when he saw the company’s exceptionally low turnover rate double during the pandemic, which was the case for many tech companies. The company sets up exit interviews with departing employees–and encourages them to share with existing workers why they’re leaving. If it’s something that the company can improve on, then leaders know what they need to change. “I think transparency, communication, and celebrating when someone is going on to do something great all pay off and help the company in the long run,” Besmertnik says.
Take note of existing office relationships.
“One of the reasons why we stay at work is because of our friendships,” says Dan Cumberland, CEO of the remote software company UpsideBuilders, which has experienced a few small quitting contagions. If someone’s best friend at work leaves, Cumberland explains, leaders shouldn’t be surprised if that workers resigns next. The solution: Look for ways you can support the employee that’s still there. “I can’t step in and be their best friend, but I know we are a remote company, and it can get lonely sometimes,” he says. “You have to think: How can I have more of a dialogue with those individuals who might get left behind, and how can I help them adjust to that transition?” Ultimately, those workers will either recommit to their jobs, or end up resigning, but increased support may make the former more likely.
Be realistic about workload transferral.
When one employee hands in their resignation, other workers inevitably face an increased workload at least temporarily–or more permanently if the employee who departed isn’t replaced. “We’re a small company, so everyone’s always juggling, Cumberland says. “It’s important to have conversations about workload–people feel it the most if they’re not getting recognition for the extra work they may have taken on, either through title or pay.” Be transparent with workers about the backfilling process. If it isn’t a priority to fill a vacancy, then be willing to compensate the employees who are picking up the extra slack–or be willing to cut back on some of their other responsibilities to manage their workloads.
Invest in employees.
Since the start of the pandemic, Conductor has rolled out a hybrid workplace option, set up weekly wellness classes, and signed up with Coursera to give employees access to classes where they can learn and sharpen their skills. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can do more for people,” Besmertnik says. While the company has experienced an uptick in departures, the CEO ultimately sees the Great Resignation as an opportunity to draw in new, talented employees who are leaving their companies. Conductor currently has an an over-90 percent acceptance rate for its job offers, Besmertnik says.
Employee investments contribute to a positive company culture, and especially in a time when many workers are reevaluating their career choices, upskilling opportunities can make a big difference in retaining them. “The demand for career advancement is very high, and organizations need to provide those opportunities,” says Race. “If they don’t, the individual will go and find it elsewhere.”